Author Bio ▼

Dr Nick Bell is a Chartered Fellow of IOSH and a Fellow of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management. Nick supports Principal Designers and construction Clients to comply with the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM). He delivers accredited CDM training and has been advising on construction projects up to £3.2bn in value.. In October 2018 Nick successfully defended his PhD thesis in which he examined the association between worker engagement and behaviour.  His work has attracted interest from across the globe.  He is now Managing Director of Workfulness Ltd and continues his CDM-related work.
December 21, 2021

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Culture And Behaviours

Lessons from a modern Christmas Carol

Dr Nick Bell offers a seasonal reflection on what lessons we and our profession might learn if we looked at modern workplaces through the eyes of Charles Dickens.

christmas-carolOver 900 staff are sacked on a Zoom call a few weeks before Christmas. The recent treatment of Better.com’s workers could be a set up for a retelling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Just over a year ago, Forbes shared a leaked email from that same boss to staff: “You are TOO DAMN SLOW. You are a bunch of DUMB DOLPHINS and…DUMB DOLPHINS get caught in nets and eaten by sharks…STOP IT RIGHT NOW. YOU ARE EMBARRASSING ME.” In response, mainstream and social media served as the modern equivalent of Dicken’s trio of spectres.

The Ghost of Christmas Past helped Scrooge to see how his greed slowly overcame his humanity. The Ghost of Christmas Present reveals the suffering caused by Scrooge’s subsequent, callous behaviour. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come reveals the deeper personal tragedies that Scrooge and others will endure if he fails to change. It was a transformational experience.

Our own stories

All organisations, and everyone in them, have their own backstories. They draw conclusions and morals from those tales about the role, capabilities and motivations of employees, the nature of the employer-employee relationship and so on. This influences how workers are perceived and treated.

Health and Safety professionals are usually characters introduced midway through an organisation’s story. As supporting cast, we might shape the unfolding tale and help others on their own character arcs. We may serve as the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future, offering meaningful and challenging insights into the impact of current practices. Sometimes we might feel like bit players, swept along by events with no lines to say.

What are the narratives in your organisation? What part do you play? How do you feel about your role and those narratives? Does your vision of health and safety support or challenge the narrative?

Perhaps dwell on that last question as you read these two fictional stories from very different organisations.

A Tale of Taylor (inspired by the management theory of Frederick Taylor, 1856-1915)

We pay our staff a wage, and in return they give us eight hours of labour and produce defined outputs every hour. If we paid them more they might work longer or faster.

We use the right tools for the right job. That means assigning the right worker to the right task then modifying their behaviour to achieve what we calculated to be optimal performance. As I explained in ‘the principles of scientific management’ in 1911 “One of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type. The man who is mentally alert and intelligent is for this very reason entirely unsuited to what would, for him, be the grinding monotony of work of this character.”

Work is not meant to be enjoyable so people slack off and cut corners. We closely monitor workers and enforce standardised methods. We do not expect or want workers to show any initiative: they are paid to follow instructions from managers. Indeed, what people think or feel is of no interest: unlike behaviour, these things cannot be seen nor reliably measured nor modified so are unworthy of consideration in our scientific approach. If people do not perform as required, this is a breach of their obligations to us.

The Seligman Saga (Inspired by Positive Psychology, Transformational Leaders and Immanuel Kant (thanks for the reference, Simon Cassin!))

When they said ‘we want you to flourish’, my eyes rolled. Now, I enjoy coming into work. The managers ask how I am, what is or isn’t going well? What can we fine tune to make things better? For example, I told my manager I’d like to learn something new, we knocked ideas around and now I’m shadowing a colleague a couple of hours a week. We all talk to each other as equals

Days fly by but obviously problems crop up. We come around as a team and work out some solutions. The manager is always up for trying something new and doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. If a new idea doesn’t quite work, that’s OK.

We had an away day to a project the team completed last year. They were buzzing and it suddenly clicked what I’m doing this for.

We’re knocking the targets out the park, and there’s always a ‘well done’ and ‘thank you’.

That’s nearly the end of the story. The winter vacation can be an emotional time particularly with the challenging, groundhog year that we just had. I hope you have positive stories to reflect on and chance to consider what tales you will be part of next year.

Ensuring a safe return to face-to-face events

In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, we speak to an events venue, London’s ExCeL, and an events business, Informa Markets, to discover how they have worked alongside industry associations and government to secure a swift and safe return to face-to-face events, in a post-pandemic world.

Click here to listen to this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast.

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